North Wessex Downs 50th Anniversary – a time for celebration and reflection

The North Wessex Downs celebrates 50 years as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and looks ahead to the future.  

Around a hundred people gathered at Marlborough Golf Club to mark the occasion at the 50th Anniversary Annual Forum on Friday 25 November and consider the challenges presented by the next 50 years: biodiversity loss, food security, human access to green spaces and climate change.  The North Wessex Downs gained its protected status back in 1972 when it was recognised as one of the UK’s finest landscapes, worthy of the highest level of protection in law. 

Speakers included: Nicola Chester, award-winning local author, Guardian writer and BBC Magazine Columnist; Natalie Ganpatsingh, founding Director of Nature Nurture CIC; Roger Kerr, CEO of Organic Farmers and Growers CIC; and Professor Tom Oliver from the University of Reading. A film made by John O’Gaunt School students on their impressions of the area, was also shown.  

Nicola Chester celebrated the beauty and history of the landscape, speaking lyrically about wildlife and connection, and reading from her prize-winning book set in the area, On Gallows Down.  Professor and author of The Self Delusion: The Surprising Science of Our Connection to Each Other and the Natural World Tom Oliver spoke of the devastating loss of biodiversity recorded over the last 50 years, which is just 40% of what we had 50 years ago.  He said that protected areas, such as the AONB, meant that there were important controls over development, but that agri-environment schemes hadn’t delivered the desired conservation of our habitats and species.  He spoke of his concern that the approach the government was taking might have unintended negative consequences, whereby ‘doing the right thing’ would become merely a transactional process and lead to ‘an ebay for ecosystems services’.  

Natalie Ganpatsingh talked about access to green spaces and asked, ‘are we all invited?’  She highlighted a recent successful project working with Henry Scutt, who wanted to see a more diverse audience accessing his Sulham Estate near Reading on the eastern edge of the AONB.  The project, in partnership with the British Islamic Gardens and Reading Refugee Support, resulted in a diverse group of women experiencing the health and wellbeing benefits of being in a beautiful green space. Roger Kerr focussed on our methods of food production and food security – stating that ‘there was something fundamentally wrong with our food system’ which is a driving force for dangerous climate change, nature loss and societal inequality.  

In a film made by John O’Gaunt School, students spoke lyrically on what they enjoy about living in the area – special places, favourite views and activities, strong communities, a surprising range of cultural events and their connections with nature and the farmed landscape all featured. 

The students also challenged the gathered delegates and influencers to tackle climate change, nature loss and access to our wonderful chalk streams, to continue to support our strong communities and perhaps provide a little bit more to do… a mini-golf course would be nice, apparently, and a Japanese takeaway!   

Chaired by the Director of the North Wessex Downs AONB, Henry Oliver, the four speakers formed a panel and took a wide range of questions and challenges on the future of the area. The forum ended after a thought-provoking afternoon with MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, proposing a toast to the North Wessex Downs followed by the Chair of the North Wessex Downs AONB Partnership, Sarah Nichols, cutting an anniversary cake.  Many delegates then took the opportunity to go outside for a stargazing session with local astronomer and Director of Marlborough’s Blackett Observatory, Gavin James to celebrate and marvel at the area’s dark night skies.  

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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale